The seething mass of evil under the patina of society (Or: Contemporary television)
I got to talking with a few people about Sons of Anarchy and some other shows and why I've largely already quit that show, while my husband is gutting out Season 6 on Netflix. And that’s sort of become a whole line of thought on what I just don’t like about contemporary television, and why I so very often quit series, right in the middle. And don’t worry, for once, it’s not me pointing out that things happen “Because Plot Said So” or the stupid decisions by characters. It’s an ethos thing, instead. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s start with Sons of Anarchy and The Walking Dead. In part, SoA has the same problems as almost every other "highly acclaimed" show on US TV today. It starts off well, with a handful of characters that the audience can empathize with. And over the course of trying to make the world "gritty and real and dark". . . something gets lost. Specifically, the hope, pretty much, that anyone can ever get out of the mess. Can escape the demons of their own nature. Can change, evolve, or achieve just enough enlightenment to go oh, hey, maybe I should change my course here. Maybe doing the same thing over and over and over again and expecting a different result really is the definition of insanity. Jason, for example, really likes The Walking Dead. Nevertheless, I still hear a fair number of "Are you kidding me?!?" and "How can you be so stupid?!?!" comments from the living room, but apparently, at least if someone deserves to die in that show, they usually die. (SoA, which has really needed to off the main character's mother for several seasons now, and they just won't shoot that character in the head and leave it in a shallow grave in the Mojave.) Personally, I just can't get into the whole zombie thing. We've been given both Shaun of the Dead and . . . Zombieland? the one with the Bill Murray cameo? He liked them. I sort of stared at the screen and wondered why we were watching them, but hey, they were gifts for him, and I was trying to be accommodating. ;)
Jason even likes the Dead Rising video games. Personally, I don't grasp the whole genre. Which is why, while there are ghul in Edda, they tend to be fast-moving and a lot scarier to me than "brainless, slow-moving, grab-at-anything-that-moves and break-down-barriers-with-sheer-mass" zombies. They can be created on the spot by a talented summoner with access to bodies. They will appear for other reasons, later, as well. That's even why I gave them a different name. I didn't want people associating them with generic boring zombies that are there to show how “heartless corporations are killing us with this chemical additive” or “it’s all a government conspiracy to hide some experiment gone wrong” or whatever we’re supposed to be afraid of today. The other thing that bugs me about The Walking Dead is, again, the erasure of hope. No matter how hard the protagonist (Sheriff Rick Grimes) works, there's no escape. There's no cure. There isn't even the possibility that people will get out of Lord of the Flies mode, and work together to rebuild civilization, because everyone they meet is crazy and evil. They're all going to die. And since every one of them is latently infected, as soon as they die, they will turn into zombies, and their friends and family (whatever is left of either) will have to put them down.
It's essentially an extended work on nihilism. On how life has no meaning except the meaning that we give to it, and the sheriff has chosen community and family as his definitions, and everyone else in the world has chosen survival at the expense of anyone else. (Don't get me started on how they'd need a working electrical grid to pump the gasoline out of the underground reservoirs for all the cars they drive, or that cars left sitting out for months without being started, probably would need to be jump-started, if their engines would turn at all, and don't get Pyth started on where the hell they got the tank, let alone the tank fuel. Shh. It would spoil the illusion.)
And I'm quite sure that the series creators won't let them find a laboratory somewhere, where maybe smart people are trying to work on a cure, and intelligence and that sense of community and family wind up reversing the plague and the zombies fall over and the few living humans left start scratching out a bare living at the medieval level again--medieval is generous, and assumes that someone out there is still teaching kids how to read, and that some books on farming are going to survive. Because for them to allow that ending, would go against the entire ethos of the show, which is that civilization is a thin veneer of barely holding back the raging tide of greed and insanity that's in most people.
Do I think that Rick and his crew are going to win?
I think that the series will end with the sheriff dying and his son, trained to be 50% sociopath and 50% lawman, will pick up his guns and walk off-screen with whatever other survivors remain, fade to black, because the boy has become the man, and now he has to make the same decisions to make meaning in a world where there is no meaning or purpose beyond staying alive, because if you die, you become one more monster out to destroy what’s left of the living.
Which brings me back to Sons of Anarchy. The whole culture revolves around violence, pride, and stupidity. In the early seasons, they did some nice work in which the gangs were pretty much equated to early feudalism. The King (Clay) had a queen, they had a castle. They forted up and brought all the women and children of their loyal retainers to safety when there was reason to believe that there would be an attack. They gave generously to the community of their wealth, and the community responded with reciprocal loyalty. The politics with rival gangs verged on the same level as Florence in the early Renaissance. Alliances had to be sealed in blood. And, of course, there was a strong Orestes/Clytemenstra/Agamemnon thing going on, because the main character’s (Jax’s) father was murdered by the man who came to marry his mother, and took over the ‘kingdom’ (gang) years ago. Whether at her bidding or not, was never made clear, but certainly with her knowledge and assent.
Feudal mentality? Doesn’t get much more feudal than one of the guys in the gang getting upset because his new wife (a porn star) is taking birth control and “denying him children” (when he can’t or won’t even take care of the ones he had. . . .). But then he largely redeemed himself by giving his life for his best friend, in the end.
So, that was all pretty good, and, like many a Mafia movie/series before, the central tension revolved around both that dramatic irony—the audience knew about the murder, but Jax did not—and around his desire to get out of the criminal life. He has a beautiful wife who’s a talented surgeon, who offers, early on, to support them. They can live off her income anywhere in the world. All he has to do is be willing to leave the gang. Which he’s stated, many times, is his goal.
BUT. . . because he’s the product of a feudal mentality, he has two problems. Pride and misplaced loyalty. Jax’s male feudal pride won’t let him “live off his wife” and he knows that he has no skills besides criminality and a middling talent as a mechanic. So he can’t leave until he’s built up enough money to leave. And then, everything shakes out so that he has almost no choice but to take over leadership, and, out of loyalty to his friends and brothers, he feels he needs to walk them out of criminal ventures and entanglements with the IRA (we’re still not entirely clear on why the IRA is in here; they’ve been sort of quiet on the world stage in recent years) and the Russian mafia andand andandandand. . . .
And it’s pretty clear that Jax will never, ever get out. His only hope of ending the cycle that began with his father’s involvement in the gang, and was passed on to him, is to either walk away, which he can’t do because of all the lies he’s been told and loyalties he can’t let go of, or to kill Clytemnestra. Who’s done some pretty unspeakable things that he’s not aware of at all. And all around him, the very few good characters are picked off, one by one, leaving him with no one at all as a moral compass. And once again, we’re stuck in a world in which there is no way out except the death of the main character, who’s stuck in a world that is evil and vile, and over which the thin patina of civilization is just a hypocritical glaze, as all but two of the lawmen in the show are revealed to be career-chasing villains in their own right, who do monstrous things not in pursuit of justice, but out of pettiness or pride or greed. . . .ugh.
The only way out for Walter White, in Breaking Bad? Death. The only resolution for Tony Soprano? Death.
The Tudors? Well, they couldn’t break much away from history (except that they frequently did!), but Henry remained precisely the same person from beginning to end. He never achieved self-awareness. For all his brilliance, he was incapable of evolving. And the world around him, other than his best friend, was another cesspit of evil and self-interest and deception.
Jax Teller? For all his father’s ruminations in the letters and manuscripts he’s read, for all the wisdom passed down to him, for all his own hesitations and compunctions, can’t evolve, either.
Rick Grimes? Doesn’t need to evolve. He’s actually a decent man. But the world around him can’t change, either.
Game of Thrones? There might be one, two characters that the audience can actually empathize with, but they're surrounded by swirling hordes of evil, civilization itself is just a thin veneer of hypocrisy over that raging vileness, and there's no real hope for any of the people we like, getting out of it alive. Sounds familiar, eh?
Frank Herbert had a leit-motif in . . . I think it was Chapterhouse: Dune. “A game in which one of the pieces can’t be moved.” These are stories in which the main character can’t move.
And then people wonder why I don't watch much TV anymore. :-/ Don't get me wrong. I like a tragedy. But a tragedy offers catharsis. Most of these shows are just. . . Jacobean revenge dramas that offer no catharis, and just wallow in evil. And that's why I usually quit them, long before they're done with their runs.